A smokeless gun?

The 7% reduction in US carbon emissions last year still does not put the US on a sustainable path.

Some good news on US carbon emissions: they went down by 7.0% in 2009. Added to the 2.7% decline before, the US is already half-way to the softball Waxman-Markey target of a 17% cut from the 2005 peak by 2020.

An elegant graph American readers bought with your tax dollars:

Source: EIA. H/T: can’t recall

It’s a bit of a surprise that this has not become a conservative talking point (footnote): see, we don’t need cap-and-trade, things are doing just fine! Let me refute it anyway.

A third of the decline (2.4%) was driven by the recession.  Thought experiment: if the economy had grown by a plausible trend 2.5%, the net carbon decline ceteris paribus would have been only 2.3%, less than the previous year’s 3.0%. Compounded for 40 years, that would give a reduction of 58% from 2008, and 61% from the peak year of 2005. (Trivial calculations from the spreadsheet versions of the chart data). So the structural trend would fall well short of meeting Obama’s objective of an 80% reduction from peak by 2050. Remember that this target isn’t radical, but pretty conservative by Copenhagen or Stern standards. Stern asks why rich countries, and especially the wasteful USA, should be entitled to the same frugal share of future carbon emission as developing countries. 4 tons of carbon a head per year, down from the American peak of 20, is still too much.

The report splits the improvement into two roughly equal parts: a first reduction in the energy intensity of GDP, and a second reduction in the carbon intensity of energy. Compared to the previous year (2007/2008), the striking changes in energy intensity were:

  • a 10% decline in industrial energy use, at least half of it cyclical – the study ignores this, only mentioning the smaller long-term shift to services
  • a reversal in commercial and residential use from a slight increase to a slight decline (below 2% each): this could be partly cyclical, but I’ll read it optimistically as a new structural trend.

Transportation use just continued its trend decline.
In energy production, the drivers of the improvement were both in electricity generation: in equal parts

  • a price-driven shift from coal to natural gas, which could be reversed if prices swing the other way
  • an increase in renewables and nuclear – mostly due to wind. This reflects a long-term shift in the generation portfolio that is unlikely to be reversed, since at the short-run margin both are much cheaper than fossil.

The structural decline in carbon emissions must therefore have been some way short of 2% a year. A better figure would need a proper breakdown of the structural/cyclical components.  A 2% trend would easily meet the 17% Waxman-Markey target in 2020 (19.4%). However, on any plausible numbers the more important later target would be missed by miles. (The Obama campaign appeared to be ignorant of compound interest, or more plausibly thought that accurate arithmetic would confuse the voters.)  So current policy is inadequate and additional measures are still called for.

It is common sense, confirmed by the famous McKinsey histogram (here, page 10), that cuts in emissions get harder as you go on. For example, the natural gas contribution to electricity can’t increase for long, and would have to be reduced eventually to get near 80% cuts. Increasing the efficiency of cars, houses and data centres is easy; airplanes and cement works, not so much. However, the drop in 2009, driven by market price signals without cap-and-trade or strong regulation, suggests that for the next few years anyway the economic cost of reductions will be as low as Stern predicts.

The argument for a carbon pricing mechanism is not mitigation but simply efficiency: it’s the best way of minimising the economic burden and political intrusiveness of a transition from carbon that’s inevitable and necessary. But you can also get there by regulation and subsidy. As with health care and the killing of the public option, it’s the clueless opposition that is driving the Obama administration towards more administrative, federal, and “socialist” solutions.

The “do-nothing”, or “wait and see”, conservatives on climate change like Manzi, Lomborg and Nordhaus, who have actual arguments on their side, are swamped in the market-place of ideas by the “know-nothing” camp of pure denialists. (To be quite fair to them, they do recommend cautious action, a “slow ramp”, rather than strict BAU. Lomborg wants to spend vast sums on renewable energy R &D, Nordhaus advocates a moderate carbon tax.) In a way, this gives a rhetorical advantage to climate-change activists, since the loudest wing of the opposition has the weakest case. It’s very odd: especially as actual policies are much closer to Nordhaus’ views than to either Stern’s or Monckton’s. So which is it: are current policies an unstable political equilibrium between denialists and activists, or is there a big and influential but invisible camp of temporizers?

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web

6 thoughts on “A smokeless gun?”

  1. I freely concede that I am testing my limits on the math here, but check this Google assisted calculation:

    .9 * (.96^40) = 0.175829536

    I read that as a 4 percent reduction compounded for the next 40 years would take us from 90 percent of peak to beyond the 80 percent reduction goal in that time. After a couple of centuries of going up, we have just done -7 percent, and even with a booming economy might have done -2.3 percent. Given the number and range of the variables, that strikes me as encouragingly plausible.

  2. When reading the PDF, don't trust the page numbers in the reader; use the number printed on the page.

  3. Ken Doran: Solving by brute force in a spreadsheet, I make it that the required annual reduction going forward is 3.69%.(Check: 0.9*((1-0.0369)^40)=0.20003). That's a lot more than 2.3%, not within a plausible margin of error. But yes, it's doable.

    Link to Obama campaign's curious "80% is 40 years at 2%" claim added to post.

  4. My point is that over the course of even one decade, let alone four, much will change that cannot be forecast now. That almost certainly includes technology not yet invented. Just how the necessary 3.7 or 4.0 reduction might be made in any year beyond the next few is inceasing unknowable now. If the most basic trends are in the right direction, I take great encouragement from that.

  5. Wow, it seems vastly dishonest to suggest that Lomborg is a "do nothing" or even a "conservative". He suggests that it would be better for people in the world to spend similar amounts of money on projects like getting clean fresh water in Africa, ridding ourselves of vaccinable diseases, and investing in alternative energy sources.

    For the most part he is well to the left of the Democratic Party.

  6. Perhaps it is safe here to admit that I am an admirer of Lomborg, and even thought that Julian Simon made sense on a lot of things. That can get you shot by a lot of otherwise tolerant progressives.

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